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How Farmers Are Working Together to Help Hedgehogs

3rd December 2018

Farmer, Rob Mcleod, holding evidence from his footprint tunnel for the Martin Down Farmer Cluster (MDFC) hedgehog survey. Taken by Peter Thompson.

The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs reported earlier this year that almost a third of the population had declined from our busy towns and cities. However, an even bigger threat currently lies within our British countryside, where hedgehogs are disappearing from our farms and villages at an alarming rate.

With over 50% of rural hedgehogs having been lost within the last decade alone, the farmers of the Martin Down Farmer Cluster (MDFC) have decided to take action into their own hands.

The iconic and unspoiled ancient grasslands of Martin Down National Nature Reserve, lie within the centre of three adjoining clusters of farms, bearing home to fragrant orchids, adonis blue butterflies, and turtle doves. Despite the flourishing wildlife within the reserve and indeed many other landscapes across the UK, the evidence is still clear. Hedgehogs need access to hedgerows and field margins to forage for food and nesting sites, but with increasing intensive farming methods, these valuable habitats are being removed.

The Martin Down Farmer Super Cluster. Picture: Martin Down National Nature Reserve (Red); Martin Down Farmer Cluster (Blue); Allenford Farmer Cluster (Orange); Chalke Valley Farmer Cluster (Green) Dorset/Wilts/Hants county border (Purple). Image provided by Jessica Brooks.

In 2017, GWCT biodiversity adviser Jessica Brooks, along with 43 farmers from across the three clusters united together to generate a plan.  In a shared aim to protect and enhance the threatened wildlife of Martin Down, they conducted a baseline hedgehog survey to find out if and where hedgehogs are present in the landscape. They created several sets of footprint tracking tunnels which could be passed from cluster to cluster. With the combined hard work of the team, a total of 300 sites were surveyed across the farmland, with an additional 60+ locations provided by local villagers in the surrounding areas.

Of the locations surveyed, it came as no surprise that hedgehogs were mainly found within villages, and were largely sparse elsewhere.

Hedgehog prints were discovered to be mostly absent from agricultural land, instead found close to small villages. Image provided by Jessica Brooks.

What is the plan of action for hedgehogs within the supercluster?

In spite of the worrying findings, there still exists a hope for the rural hedgehogs of Martin Down. With a map of the population firmly planted, the team now set off to continue to improve engagement and education among the surrounding villages, so that they can protect the existing hedgehog population. The farmers can then begin to make improvements to their land which will encourage hedgehogs to once again roam and take up residence further afield.

Field margins can offer an abundant food source to hedgehogs, but these are often scarce in intensively farmed landscapes. Wider margins help to encourage dispersal and access to food and nesting materials. Through funding provided by agri-environment schemes, farmers aim to install grass and flower margins which will provide valuable nesting areas during the summer months. Work is also being taken to improve the hedges found in the area to help reduce disturbance to hedgehogs during hibernation, and provide leaf litter for nest building. The cluster are planning to host a hedge-laying competition to spark interest in the area.

Student volunteer, helping to assemble footprint tunnels to track the distribution of hedgehogs within the cluster. Image provided by Jessica Brooks.

Additionally, the team also plan to continue to repeat these farmland surveys on alternate years to see whether or not the action taken is having an impact on the hedgehog population within the Martin Down Supercluster.

Although the future is not yet clear for the population of our rural hedgehogs, the Martin Down Farmer Cluster have put in a fantastic effort to inspire change to how agricultural land is managed across the UK. With a keen interest continuing to spark across the country, these small, yet mighty changes to farming to could help to ensure the nations favourite wild animal remains firmly on our land as a key indicator of a healthy and sustainable countryside.

At peace resting in a a nest of leaves. Taken by Alan Baldry.

Click here to discover how you can help hedgehogs to thrive on your land.

By Milly Ferguson